I had time for just two visits to wine producers south of Vienne, France in January. I was attending a conference on the history of Syrah and related topics, for the city sits at the northern tip of the great Rhone Syrah wine region where the Rhone cuts its path through steep-sided slopes before it becomes, for a stretch, a broader ribbon with flatter borders.
A few minutes south of Vienne by car is Ampuis, a village whose fame far outstrips the size of the place. I spent time there exploring barrel samples with René Rostaing, whose small winery by French standards (50,000 bottles) is just a few metres from the Rhone. Standing outside the cellar, the vine-covered slopes that dominate the village are 300 metres from us. The river at this point runs east to west, Rostaing points out, giving it a special microclimate.
These are some of the oldest – possibly the oldest – planted vineyards in France, I would learn at the conference in Vienne, a small city that was once an important Roman settlement. And yet Syrah, the grape which has made the region’s name today, is first mentioned in writing only in the 18th century, according to Wine Grapes and the many names that may have been used for it make the history murky.
This is the heart of the Côte Rôtie appellation, one of 28 AOCs in France’s Rhone Valley region. It is arguably the most exclusive of the AOCs, with some of the most refined and often most expensive wines. The steep but not high (200 metres) hillsides with schist soil that drains quickly had 308 hectares (ha) of vines in 2016; 100% of the grapes are made into red wines, notably Syrah. The stone walls, dry soil and sun exposure for the vines here gave the AOC its name, which translates as roasted slopes. Hot and sunny, protected from the wind.
These wines are reputed to be more delicate, feminine and aromatic than the great Hermitage wines further south, theoretically because they occasionally have a bit of white Viognier blended in. Even the pure Syrah wines here tend to have floral aromas (violets) that mingle with richer notes of olives and bacon. They are classier, more elegant than St Joseph wines, and most are harder on your pocketbook.
St Joseph, a few short kilometres south along the river and my single stop after Ampuis, has 1,231 hectares of vineyard; 88% of its wine is red. Syrah is king here, too, but it borders Condrieu, a hugely popular AOC in recent years which has made the Viognier grape famous. The AOC produces 100% white wine.
Domaine de Monteillet, high above the Rhone near the village of Montélier, is a larger winery, with the almost hyperactive Stéphane Montez growing it from 7 hectares in 2000 to some 30 ha today. He produces 200,000 bottles a year. He has vineyards in several AOCs in the area, with 15 vine parcels in St Joseph. In Côte Rôtie, he has 6 vine parcels. One is his own and 5 wineries share another small and very desirable parcel. When I ask why he is in Côte Rotie, given that he considers St Joseph and its grapes his home territory, he smiles. “If you love Syrah and you make wine, well, it’s your dream.”
Not such an easy dream – Jancis Robinson notes that “To grow vines in the northern Rhône’s only commercially viable sites, the ones that catch the sun for long enough to ripen grapes fully, you have either to inherit an established vineyard (usually on the right bank) or to be sure of fetching a high price for the resulting wine.” This hasn’t always been the case; just 60 years ago France had only 1,600 hectares of Syrah and today the figure is closer to 70,000. Here, as elsewhere, new plantings have often been on flat, lower areas and the resulting wine is not on a par with the best Syrahs from the slopes.
Both of these red wine AOCs saw a dip between 2012 and 2015 in the surface area planted, fallout from the Syrah boom years coupled with the economic meltdown at the end of the century’s first decade. But since 2015 vines have been planted and vineyards renewed. These are wines that will hit the market in 2019, so expect to hear more about the area. Little Switzerland is a fan, receiving 8% of the exports, more than Germany, right behind the US with a figure that is about half of exports to Great Britain, the largest consuming country.
The reason for Switzerland’s love affair with these wines is easy to understand. Côte Rôtie wines have all the goodness of Syrah, from fine aromas to concentrated fruit in mouth and yet they don’t overwhelm with too much leather and spices. If you appreciate fine food, you appreciate these wines; the evening after my visit to Montez he was expecting the head sommelier from one of the great palace hotels in the Lake Geneva region, an old friend and regular visitor. It turns out that he sometimes brings Montez Petite Arvine wine from Switzerland, which this French winemaker loves.
There is another thread in the Switzerland-Côte Rotie story, which is simply that they are part of the same Rhone river fabric. The Rhone begins life in the Swiss Alps, slipping out from under the Rhone glacier in the Goms Valley, wending its way down to Brig, Visp, Leuk, Sierre, Sion, Martigny and on to Lake Geneva, where it spends 8 years crossing the lake. It then comes out in Geneva and heads for France.
During its passage through canton Valais it gives rise to one of the other great Syrah regions, where the north of north Rhone wines are produced. Rostaing says he considers the Valais Syrahs excellent, describing the difference as “they are chewy, less complex than ours.”
Rostaing’s leads me downstairs to a small barrel room; upstairs his son and others are busy packing and moving. Visitors won’t find a tasting room or shop here. We start with his 2016 entry level wine, price €13 only, to my astonishment (cellar price). Expect to pay one-third more for his wines in shops. It is less complex than what I expect from these wines, but a pleasing smokiness makes me feel this is very good value for money.
We move on to the 2016 Ampodium, a beautiful wine, remarkable for its rich and chewy mouth. We try a 2017 parcels blend, Les Lezardes, a non-appelation wine from heavier soil that he describes as “more rustic”, but the first word that comes to mind for me is gorgeous despite tannins that need to relax and smooth out. Rostaing mentions in passing that he loves Cornalin from Valais, a true terroir wine as he calls it. He makes only 2-3,000 bottles of this wine, which must, out of respect, be left to age. These are all made in old oak, for “new oak would kill them”.
Now we try a barrel sample of the famous Landonne 2017, where the tannins are also felt at the outset, but this wine is so elegant that I barely notice this. Older vintages of this wine, whose notoriety owes much to his uncle, are sold at auction for prices that reach the sky. “We’ve always known this was a great terroir,” he says, but René himself is not a wine snob and shrugs off the auction craziness. Not everyone likes Côte Rôtie, he points out, and it’s fine with him if they want to drink Beaujolais. Nevertheless, I’m told not to spit out this wine, as I’ve been doing up to this point. Swallow it; this is wine we treat with the respect it is due. The 2017 is pure class. The yield was small and the resulting wine is very elegant.
I tell him I’m off to the conference tomorrow on the history of the region, of Syrah. He shrugs. “They used to complant (different varieties grown together, often randomly allow to replant themselves) here, we think, and they let anything grow. But we don’t really know. There’s no way to know the history.”
A visit to the Montez winery is another experience altogether. The beautiful granite that gave rise to the popular Cuvée Papy has been used for a rock wall near the tasting boutique. Tourists are welcomed and they have a wide range of wines from which to choose.
I set off with Montez to see his barrel room and before I knew it we were trying to taste barrel samples from each of his many vine parcels. His enthusiasm and energy are contagious. His dream as a young man was to spend a couple months a year working at the winery and the rest of the year traveling. He worked in wineries in Napa in California, near Stellenbosch in South Africa, Australia, briefly in Switzerland and even in the UK. This ninth generation grape grower came home to stay, though, when the work became too much for his father.
The barrel room – I haven’t yet realized it is one of many in this Ali Baba cave – holds scores of what I suddenly see are barrels and ? what, I ask. Demi-muids, he explains, because he’s working hard to have less wood influence. He doesn’t like stainless steel tanks because “wine needs air”.
These larger barrel-like containers are more complicated to store and he shows me his ongoing efforts to stack them. We sample from a lower one because it’s too complicated to get up to the top of the heap.
Cuvée Papy is his bestseller and has been since his father created it in 1989 when he became a grandfather for the first time. It’s a selection of the best grapes from the best slopes, but it’s also different each time, like the children in a family, and this is part of what Stéphane likes about it. “Each vintage is made differently, but the terroir should still be the important common thread. I play with including grape bunch stems or not, with the temperature of the fermentation, the length of time it matures.”
And now we race around the barrel room to compare wines from various parcels, which are fermented and raised separately, then blended once they are ready. Some reds have finished their malolactic (second) fermentation, others are still in the process, and these are noticeably more acidic, with the CO2 biting my teeth a bit. The acidity is there, good news, and it will settle down by the time we’re buying these wines, better news. The CO2 flies out the door when wine is bottled, but when you’re tasting barrel samples it can hide the aromas a bit. I have to work at thinking what the end result will be.
Each parcel has its distinct personality and if I had never experienced what a terroir wine was, I would find it here. One has deeply black currant aromas and flavours, another is all blackberry.
We talk about pruning at length, for Stéphane Montez is a fanatic for growing vines that will give him the wines he wants, and pruning is at the heart of this. He takes longer – four months – than most to prune all of his vines, and leaves it as late as possible. He is a great fan of France’s François Dal, who espouses and teaches “non-mutilating” pruning and training methods for grapevines.
We work our way down to older cellars with some rooms, checking the hole in the cellar where the grapes are placed so the juice uses gravity to run down. Night has fallen and I have just enough time for a brief sample of some of his bottled St Joseph and Condrieu wines. I very much like Fortis, which has real character and will easily please: 95% Syrah, 5% Viognier, and at €22.50, good value for money. By comparison, his beautiful Les Grandes Places from one of the finest Côte Rôtie parcels (0.39 ha), is €106.50, cellar prices for both.
The wines may be sleeping for the winter, but they are always at least a little bit at work, and I suspect the man who creates them is the same, for as I drive off in the dark he is heading back into the cellars for a final bedtime check on his wines.